High times in a downturn

2009, Mazda, MazdaSpeed3 GT

Things aren't going to get a whole lot easier for a while, so you've got two choices: You can grump about it. Or you can grit your teeth and get on with it. Personally, I'm donating my allotment of pessimism to the widget-counters among the world's automakers. As a result, I've a lot more mood room for enjoying some of the clever cars that are still rolling off the assembly lines.

It's said that you make your own luck. If so, Ford's feisty Focus may be the makings of a turnaround. And now that Mazda's beginning to shed the yoke of Ford's ownership interest in its operations, the latest MazdaSpeed3 super-hatch feels like a declaration of independence. Then, as if Honda needed a reminder that sticking to one's knitting isn't the same as settling for old yarns, the Civic Si pocket-rocket is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale auto climate.

By now this much is clear: Mazda has begun to believe its own press releases. All that "zoom, zoom" stuff, for example. The cars do indeed go "zoom." Whatever happened to stretching-the-truth-in-advertising? Mazda's in the process of giving that time-honored concept a black eye.

With the Mazdaspeed3, Japan's most Europhile automaker has set out to build the flick-knife of sporty subcompacts. Even as far back as the heyday of the Protege, this particular car category has been a Mazda specialty. For 2009, the company wraps a turbo and intercooler around a 2.3-liter twin-cam, variable-valve four-banger. The result is a 263-hp screamer making 280 foot-pounds and capable of zero-to-60 in six seconds. Under full throttle, the car honks like a French horn at a fox hunt. And its scarcely controllable front wheels scramble for precious traction like sled-dogs at the Iditerod.

It's fun; but it's also a bit much. Although the stylish exterior is racy and aero, the Mazdaspeed3 GT behaves like an identity crisis on wheels. On the one hand, it's a pavement-streaker on hotrod steroids. On the other hand, it's a utilitarian five-seater hatch with variable cargo space that ranges from 17 to 43 feet. It gives the impression that it would rather be out playing bumper-tag with Subaru WRXs and Mitsubishi Evos when, in reality, it's shuttling kids between school and soccer.

The Focus isn't just an economical subcompact, which first debuted upon these shores almost a decade ago. It's also a tacit admission by Ford that what the rest of the world wants Americans now deserve to have. Ford is the fountainhead of F-Series pickups and Explorer/Expedition/Excursion SUVs, remember. Until lately, Focus was a step-child suitable only for poncy Brits and froggy Frenchmen. But lo! and behold: Ford of Europe is one of the company's only profit centers of late. Maybe now it's time to focus on Focus after all.

This is no supercar; although it certainly seems exotic to North Americans because of the general lack of attention paid to the small-car market. Along serpentine back roads in England and Wales (and there are hardly any other kind), Focus displays the tight, precise balance of a sports-car, albeit a low-powered one. Perhaps this is an acquired taste in the U.S., but U.S. drivers seem now eager to acquire it particularly in light of the Focus' delightful mileage parsimony of 24 mpg/city, 35 mpg/highway.

For U.S. climes, the Focus loses some of its sporty suspensions tightness in deference perhaps to our predilection for couch potato driving along unending freeways. And the car's 140-horsepower 2.0-liter four is fairly puny (especially compared with the Honda Si's 197-hp 2.0-liter); but Ford's Focus is rich in torque, and when mated to the five-speed manual, it's an entertaining car to drive fast or slow.

Its value, on the other hand, is superb. Roomy seating for five; a decent, boxy trunk; and a base price under $15-grand ($16,180 as-tested). Isn't a good car at a great price worth wanting? Nowadays, maybe so.

Around Detroit these days, Honda has become a five-letter word; so out of respect for the Michigan Three during their respective travails, it's only fair to be discreet when using the H-word. So here goes: The H-car generally recognized as the Civic Si is a holy-smokes hottie that's almost too hip to handle.

With its 197-hp iVtec powertrain, which mates a high-output four-banger to a precision short-throw six-speed manual transmission, the Si is an authentic piece of Formula One for a world of stop signs and red lights. Although torque is relatively modest, this is a high-revving, deep-throated motor that feels (and sounds) like a fire-breathing dragon when revs hit five-grand or so. Just the same, the H-car's masterful suspension virtually eliminates torque-steer up front while maintaining pinpoint balance through tight twisties and open sweepers.

Behind the wheel, one isn't so much a driver as a pilot of the Si. It features aircraft-style readouts located in a heads-up center binnacle. If there's any strong criticism to make of the Si, it concerns the selfish pleasure of driving one. Rear-seat passengers are short-changed in cramped quarters with difficult in and out access. And the front passenger is forced to sit in passive envy of the fellow to the left with his hands on the wheel.

Then too, of course, at $24-grand the Si is no bargain. So Detroit can take solace in that fact at least. Although "mere-mortal" H-car Civics are selling like hotcakes at a base price of just $15,205, the fun one, the Si, costs $7,500 more and sells, well, only pretty darn well.

By Marc Stengel

More Mazda car reviews?

Images of the 2009, Mazda MazdaSpeed3 GT

2009 MazdaSpeed3 GT front view
2009 MazdaSpeed3 GT front view
2009 MazdaSpeed3 GT rear shot
2009 MazdaSpeed3 GT rear shot
2009 Ford Focus SE front view
2009 Ford Focus SE front view
2009 Honda Civic Si front view
2009 Honda Civic Si front view